Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) : Immigration

Posted on June 7, 2007

Mr. President, I appreciate the tremendous effort that has been made on both sides of the aisle to try to address the immigration dilemma facing our country. In my view, other than the war in Iraq, the war on terror, there is nothing more important before us, and we should leave the bill on this floor for as long as it takes to get it right because as difficult as it is to get it right, it seems to me that failure is not an option. If we fail, then what we have done is admitted that we have just simply allowed a situation to continue where perhaps a million new illegal persons will come into our country each year. That contravenes the rule of law upon which this country is founded, it works against our ability to be a country that lives by the motto that is engraved up there on the wall, "one from many," to assimilate into our country the number of people who are coming, and it is a poor example for the rest of the world when we suggest to them that they create governments that rely upon the rule of law. It also absolutely enrages the American citizens, who look at Washington and say that the Government has done a horrible job for the last 10, 15, 20 years in enforcing our immigration laws. Americans have, in many cases, lost faith that we even have the ability to fix the mess. I used to feel that way myself before I came here. I haven't been here that long -- just 4 years. Twelve years ago, I was a candidate for President of the United States. I was in those debates which we watched on television last night, or those kinds of debates. One of my proposals was that we should create a new branch of the military in order to secure the border. In 1994, 1995, and 1996, Americans were upset about our inability to distinguish between legal immigration, which is the lifeblood of our country, and illegal immigration, which is an affront to the rule of law and the principles of what it means to be an American. So this has been going on year after year after year. When I was home last week in Tennessee, I spent a lot of time listening and talking to Tennesseans. In fact, I just left a group of homebuilders from Tennessee in my office who were talking to me about the immigration bill and about some concerns they have. But of all the concerns that came through to me last week in my conversations with Tennesseans, it boils down to this: We don't really trust you guys in Washington, DC, to fix this problem. You don't seem to be willing to do it. So I have a suggestion today that I will make, an amendment that I intend to offer. I won't call it up at this moment, but I want my colleagues to know about it and the country to know about it because I think if this bill were to become law, it would increase the level of trust the American people would have in the ability of this Government to enforce whatever law we pass. I am not suggesting it would solve everything or that we would regain trust overnight, but I am suggesting it would be a step forward. I will describe the legislation in just a moment, but it boils down to this: We would involve the Governors of the border States between the United States and Mexico in determining whether the new border control system we put in place is actually operational. Right now, particularly amendment offered by my distinguished colleague from New Hampshire (Senator Gregg) the other day, the proposed bill has been strengthened in the following way: He said that his amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that it has established and demonstrated operational control over the entire U.S.-Mexico land border before other parts of the bill involving legal status could go into effect. We call this the trigger. Senator Isakson from Georgia suggested this last year. It is a wise idea. It says, first we secure the border, and then, when it is secure, we do the other things about legalization of people already here, to the extent we decide to do that. But the question still remains: Who is going to say when the border is secure? The people out across the country -- at least those in Tennessee -- don't trust us, don't trust the Government in Washington, because of this poor record of 20 years. It doesn't matter that I just got here 4 years ago. They look up here and see the Government and they say: You didn't do it last year, you didn't do it 3 years ago, you didn't do it 10 years ago or 15 years ago, so how do we know you are ever going to do it, even if you pass the law? Well, the three things I can think of that would make a difference are, No. 1, to pass a bill with teeth in it. For example, the Gregg amendment says there will be 20,000 Border Patrol agents. That is more than we currently have. Today, there are 13,000. There will be four unmanned aerial vehicles. There will be 300 miles of vehicle barriers. Currently, there are about 78. There will have to be at least 370 miles of fencing already built. Now, there are 700 already authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and that hasn't changed, but 370 miles would have to be built. There would have to be 70 ground-based radar and camera towers on the southwest border. There would have to be a permanent end to catch and release. There would have to be an employment verification system that requires employers to electronically verify new hires within 18 months and all existing employees within 3 years. All of those things would have to be in place. The words are they would have to be "established and demonstrated, that the Federal Government had operational control over the entire U.S.-Mexico land border." The amendment that is already part of the bill, the Gregg amendment, said the Director of Homeland Security would certify that. What I add with my amendment is it has to be concurred in, agreed with, signed off on by three of the four Governors on the United States-Mexico border. In other words, we pass the law with teeth -- the teeth of the Gregg amendment and maybe more. I have suggested, and others seem to have agreed, what we ought to do is then fund the law. Either the President challenges us to pass an appropriations bill within 30 days after we pass the law, we do it ourselves, or we set up a trust fund -- the way we do for highways and the way we do for Social Security, the way we do for anything else -- and we say that money goes to secure the border, to fund these things. We pass a law with teeth. Then we provide the money. Then the Director of Homeland Security says the border is secure. That is the trigger. My amendment would say: The Governors of the border States, three out of four, have to agree. The Governors of the border States are not in Washington, DC. They have not been infected with whatever is up here. They have not even been vaccinated. I have been up here long enough to be vaccinated with whatever disease is up here, and for that reason more Tennesseans trust the Governors than they do the Washington officials to solve this problem. If the Governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas say yes, the border is secure, we agree with the certification of the Department of Homeland Security, I think that would be good enough for most Americans. That is the point of my amendment. We need to put together a good bill that secures the border first. After border security, the other biggest problem is what to do about those already here illegally. I think that issue is less of an issue if most Americans believe we would pass a law that permitted the Border Patrol agents and the verification system to be done, that we would fund it and we would actually do it as certified by the Director of Homeland Security and the Governors on the border. Then I think they would be willing to accept different solutions for those already here. But the week before last I voted for the amendment offered by Senator Vitter that would have sent the bill's drafters back to the drawing board on the question of what to do about the 12 million illegal persons, more or less, who are already here. Senator Hutchison and Senator Corker have done some very important work on this issue, which I intend to support and to cosponsor. That amendment would require illegal immigrants, who want to work here, to return to their home countries and reenter through legal channels in addition to paying a fine and passing the criminal background check. In addition to that, this bill should be about another subject about which we hear almost nothing, and that is the number of people who come here legally every year. A little more than a million people come into the United States each year legally. Today, if I remember the figures right, most are family members. Some come here as students. Some come here as researchers, to create jobs for us. Some come here as refugees. For those Americans who come here legally and who are prospective citizens, especially given the large number of people coming from overseas, we need to do everything we can to help those persons become Americans. I have filed several amendments. They seek to promote learning English, our common language, and what it means to become an American through an understanding of history and civics. For example, one of these amendments will help these legal immigrants learn English and what it means to be an American, to codify the oath of allegiance, and to make English our national language. Another amendment would ask the General Accountability Office to provide a comprehensive report on the costs imposed on the public and private sector by having millions of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are not proficient in English. So far in this debate the Senate has already passed my amendment to establish a Presidential award to recognize companies who have taken extraordinary efforts to help their employees learn English and American history and civics. Some may say that is not so important, we all agree with that. It is awfully important. If you take a look at Europe today and you see the difficulty France has helping immigrants become French, and that Germany has helping immigrant workers become German, and that Japan has -- because no one has an idea of what it might mean to become Japanese if you are not born Japanese -- you can see how fortunate we are in this country to have literally invented the concept of becoming American. We say it does not matter what your race is, it doesn't matter who your grandfather is, you come here, you take the oath George Washington gave his officers at Valley Forge and you say: I am not whatever I was. I pledge allegiance to America. I learned the language, I learned the history, and we have a few principles we agree on, and I am an American. I am proud of where I came from, but I am prouder to be an American. Race doesn't matter. Religion doesn't matter. We pride ourselves on that. It is a tremendous advantage we have, so we ought not lose sight of the importance of helping legal citizens learn English and what it means to be an American. I have heard some talk that encouraging people to learn English is somehow divisive. I can't imagine that. In fact, it is the reverse. It is our unifier. It unifies us, to have a common language. It unifies us to know that the rule of law and equal opportunity are common principles. We debate what that means, and often they collide and conflict and we have to work that out as legislators, but we all agree on the same common principles and we enjoy the fact we have a common language, so I can speak to the President, and I can argue with the Senator from Colorado or I can agree with him as we are doing on an Iraq piece of legislation right now. We have a common language. So, common language, what it means to be an American, finding many different ways to honor these new citizens who come here legally -- that ought to be as important a part of this bill as securing the border and creating a verification system in dealing with the people who already got here illegally. Primarily I came to the floor this afternoon to let my colleagues know I have a suggestion for how to begin to regain the trust of the American people on this issue, and that is this bill should pass with strong new provisions for border security, with funding to pay for it, and with a trigger that says the legalization parts of the bill don't take effect for 2, 3, 4, maybe even 5 years, until the border is secure. Then the question is how are we going to know if the border is secure? The bill says trust the Director of Homeland Security. I say ask him, pay attention to him or her, but also trust the Governors of the border States. Let three out of the four Governors, of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas concur with the Director of Homeland Security that the border is secure before we begin the legalization process, and I think the American people might buy it, they might believe that, and we might begin to regain their trust, after 20 years of mismanagement, that we are willing to take seriously securing the border and establishing respect again so we can have a rule of law. # # #